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Tim Farron’s Resignation

June 15, 2017 Comments off

Tonight I was planning on writing some posts about the need for British Proportional Representation. However, the resignation of Tim Farron MP as leader of the Liberal Democrats has occupied a lot of my attention. I’ve been discussing it on social media but obviously that’s not a place for nuance, so I figured I’d put something here. The tl;dr version is the bullet points at the bottom.

I’ve been on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, the party’s body for LGBT+ equality, for about a decade. In that time I’ve worked with various party leaders and presidents to keep the Lib Dems at the forefront of the ongoing struggle for equality for sexual and gender minorities – a position we’ve held since the 1970s when we became the first party to support gay rights in a General Election manifesto, and the first party to host a debate on gay rights at our conference. Of the Lib Dem politicians I’ve met in this capacity, Tim Farron has been one of the most proactive in reaching out to us to offer the party’s political and infrastructural weight to aid our causes – both as President and as Leader.

Tim Farron at the LGBT+ Lib Dems Summer Strategy Conference 2012

Concerns about Tim’s beliefs and how they might impact his policy stance surfaced during the debates on Same-Sex Marriage – a Lib Dem policy pushed through in Coalition by equalities minister Lynne Featherstone. Tim abstained on some votes, along with Simon Hughes (who has had a complicated relationship between his Christianity and his bisexuality), claiming to want a more French-style system of civil marriage with optional religious blessing, and later to include further protections for trans people against the human rights-denying “spousal veto”. These explanations of his voting reassured some, but failed to convince others.

In 2015 when he became Leader, he faced his first test at the hands of Cathy Newman where refused to answer questions about whether gay sex was a sin. At the time, I was Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, and I really wasn’t bothered about the interview – as an atheist, the concept of religious sin means nothing to me; somebody else believing I’m going to hell for my sexuality doesn’t affect the way I live my life. However, a number of people in the party were deeply upset, including a few who resigned over the issue.

Two years later, the same questions were revisited by the same journalist and Tim still didn’t have an answer for them. This, I think, is where Tim must accept some of the blame – he’d had two years to prepare a snappy answer and failed to do so. Theresa May was asked the same question, and gave a quick off the cuff reply which shut down further debate despite her voting record. Tim’s line of “I’m running for Westminster, not the Vatican” was good, but it came far too late in the day.

PrEP on the NHS – one of the Liberal Democrats’ policies in the 2017 General Election

LGBT+ Lib Dems made sure that the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto in 2017 was the most progressive on LGBT+ equality ever seen. As usual these policies have been passed by Conference and are the official positions of the Liberal Democrats, not a wish-list from an internal lobbying organisation as some of our opponents have. It was intensely frustrating to see the years of hard work that went into that being derailed in the campaign by Tim’s poor media handling

We had, for example, a fantastic story on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent new HIV infections; unlike the Tories and Labour, we agreed with the Scottish NHS that enough research had been done to justify an immediate roll-out. In the short term we had a plan to fund it, and in the long term it would save money as preventing HIV is cheaper than treating it. It tied in with our national campaign message on funding the NHS and social care. But we didn’t get to tell that story – we were too busy on the defensive about Tim (including Jennie’s excellent HuffPo article).

Ending the spousal veto, from the Lib Dems’ GE2017 Manifesto

Of course, a lot of the people stirring this particular pot were opposition activists, telling everybody that Tim is a homophobe. That isn’t true, but Tim’s actions made it an easy lie to believe, and to quote Swift, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. It derailed the election campaign, put us on the back foot, and cost us votes. I’m not sure how many, but in a campaign where we lost so many seats by so few votes, and so many activists report it coming up on the doorstep around the country, it’s highly likely that it made the difference between 12 MPs and 13 or 14.

Yesterday was an interesting day for me as a Lib Dem member. Lots of speculation about who should stand for Deputy Leader, and whether Tim should stand down as part of the constitutionally-mandated leadership election inside the next 12 months. Then Lord Brian Paddick resigned as Shadow Home Secretary. Then, a few hours later, Tim was gone. A lot has happened quickly and there’s a lot of hurt and anger flying around, not least in Tim’s resignation statement – understandable, but rather unhelpful.

To sum up my feelings on this:

  1. Tim is not a homophobe. As a Liberal Democrat and a Parliamentarian he’s been one of the more helpful people in the party most consistently dedicated to LGBT+ equality
  2. Tim was not hounded out because of his Christianity. There is a long and proud tradition of Christians in the Liberal Democrats, from our nonconformist roots, through to Charles Kennedy as leader, and Brian Paddick himself
  3. Tim’s inability to come up with a good answer to an entirely predictable question, two years after it was first asked, hurt the Lib Dems among a core demographic in a very tight General Election
  4. The dirt that stuck to Tim as a result would have remained throughout his leadership; I felt that he would have to stand down within 12 months
  5. Brian Paddick did the right thing in not making this more of an issue before Polling Day; he did the right thing in making sure it wasn’t forgotten about like it was in 2015
  6. I am sad that Tim has stood down, but not surprised, and slightly relieved
  7. I hope Tim is OK and has good people looking after him, and continues to play an active role in liberal and Liberal Democrat politics much as Nick Clegg has for the last two years

And a final word – the Lib Dems are the best party for LGBT+ equality because for decades we’ve had committed volunteers as activists for LGBT+ Lib Dems and its predecessor organisations. If you’re at all interested in these issues, and especially if you want to help the party campaign on them around the country, please join LGBT+ Lib Dems.

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Combining Targeting with Growth

August 3, 2014 4 comments

Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, at Lib Dem Conference 2009

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIt seems obvious in Lib Dem circles that in the run-up to the next General Election we’re going to have to significantly concentrate our strength in our held seats, and the small smattering of (mostly Tory) constituencies where it looks like we can take them from our opponents. This is the subject of a recent op-ed by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice, referencing a Guardian article.

It’s also a continuation of what’s been referred to as the “Rennard Doctrine”, a strategy which emphasises concentrating resources on where we can win adopted by Chris Rennard as Chief Executive, which saw the Lib Dems’ share of the seats won in General Elections more closely matching our share of the popular vote. A 20% discrepancy came down to around 10% – still a long way short thanks to the vagaries of “First Past The Post” plurality voting, but enough to make the party a more effective Parliamentary force.

The problem, as discussed in Stephen’s article, is that by concentrating resources on the places we can win, the places we can’t win get weaker and weaker. This was the story of Cleggmania in 2010; the biggest rise in membership in 20 years, most of whom joined in places where there was no Lib Dem presence, and hence nothing to engage or retain them. Yes, the fall in 2011 was even bigger than the Cleggmania rise, but the disheartening feeling of joining and getting nothing out of the party can’t have helped. (You can see more on Lib Dem membership figures over here.)

The alternative to purely concentrating our strength where we think we can win, is what’s termed in the US as a 50 State Strategy. It was popularised by Howard Dean as chair of the DNC (and indeed he came to Liberal Democrat conference in 2009 to tell us about it). This attempts to mobilise Democrat supporters wherever they are in the country, even deep in Republican territory – introducing them to each other, encouraging street-scale campaigning, standing for election… generally low-level grassroots activity which can build up over time. This doesn’t make much short-term sense; even the vote for President isn’t a direct popular vote, but filtered through the electoral college which is pluralistic in almost every state. However, in the longer term it can pay dividends; starting to flex campaigning muscles in Republican turf in 2005 may well have led to Obama winning Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, since the party was more able to capitalise on Obama’s national media profile. The comparison to Cleggmania should be obvious.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

We fought this year’s Euro elections on the idea that our areas of strength would give us enough votes to win seats in a PR system. Generally, our vote held up in those places thanks to our campaigning, but our vote elsewhere collapsed horribly, and we lost almost all our MEPs. We will need to build our strength nationwide before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016, and the European Parliament elections in 2019. But what of the General Election in 2015?

To borrow a phrase from bi activism, we can embrace the power of “and”. While it’s clear that the majority of our resources must be dedicated to campaigning until polling day, I think there’s room to look to expand, using the General Election as a driver. While we can’t run a full 650 Constituency Strategy, we can look a little wider than the boundaries of our target constituencies. Most of our held seats are non-adjacent, so we should be reaching out to bring members, supporters and activists into the campaigns.

As a Lib Dem in a constituency adjacent to one of our held seats, this is what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work on member engagement and retention, trying to make sure my members are supporting campaigning and fundraising events in our held seat. I’ve organised simple social events to draw in people from across the area and get people talking and enthused, and their reach is spreading to other nearby “black holes”. Through all this the drive is to get people worked up, more keen to play a part in their local area, but mostly to come and help in our targets.

In the longer term, we have two options – keep rolling out from the centres of strength, which is a slow-but-steady grassroots approach, or try to identify potential hotspots where we might be able to start up activity more or less from scratch. I think that regional parties have a strong part to play in the latter. (One thing I like about CiviCRM as a membership management tool is that it allows you to map members, supporters and activists by postcode, giving you a good “feel” for where you might have a nexus of support.) But this will require strong regional parties who are committed to rebuilding in black holes, and I’m not sure how many of those the party has.